By William Pfaff
Now that America’s primary elections have eliminated the more implausible contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, it is possible to take a clearer look at what the electorate will be up against when the conventions are over in the fall, and when the newly elected president assumes (or resumes) command of American foreign policy.
Barring the unforeseeable, the Democratic candidate will be Barack Obama. If the polls, and the wishful thinking of old-school Republicans, are right, the Republican candidate will be Mitt Romney, who has displayed the least ignorance of foreign policy issues among the surviving primary candidates. That does not say much. His proposal that American policy in the Middle East be wholly submitted to the approval of the present government of Israel differs from the other candidates (Obama included; Ron Paul excluded) only by its degree of grovel and electoral pandering. He could, however, be elected. That is why he said it.
Nicholas Burns, now of the Harvard Kennedy School, formerly George W. Bush’s undersecretary of state for political affairs, recently wrote in The Boston Globe commending the presidential candidacies of Romney and Jon Huntsman (now scratched) as representatives of “the rich Republican foreign policy strength in knowledge, judgment and experience dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower.” The Eisenhower administration, and that of the senior George Bush, who negotiated the Cold War’s end, undoubtedly constitute the peaks of modern Republican statesmanship. The highest point was provided by Mr. Eisenhower’s premonitory, and fatally ignored, warning against American militarism, of which we are now the victims.
If Romney succeeds, and does what all the Republican candidates (Paul excluded) have promised—strike Iran, or sustain Israel in attacking that country—the United States would begin 2013 in or at the edge of a new Middle Eastern war, estranged from the European democracies, as well as from much of the non-Western world.
The foreign policy community in Washington seems convinced of future difficulties with China, already involving tests of national will, as well as the ostentatious display of military power. This is a serious matter, as well as an unreasonable one, from which nothing is to be gained by either side. It resembles the aggressive American approach to Russia (pushing NATO expansion and missile installations toward Russia) that began under Bill Clinton. The hostility toward China began under Obama and is equally reckless.
The American people display no appetite for still more war, but the foreign policy elites of Washington seem otherwise disposed, as the continuing American extension of bases and deployment of forces give evidence. One might think that failure in Vietnam taught a lesson. The public was fed up with war.
Putting an end to conscription, which the American people demanded in the 1970s, and professionalizing the army, had unforeseen consequences. It handed the Pentagon and the White House an instrument for distancing both the public and other leaders from ground warfare.
There were military men who were concerned by what was happening.
The Army chief of staff in 1976, Gen. Fred C. Weyand, said, “Vietnam was a reaffirmation of the peculiar relationship between the American Army and the American people. The American Army really is a people’s Army in the sense that it belongs to the American people who take a jealous and proprietary interest in its involvement. … In the final analysis, the American Army is not so much an arm of the executive branch as it is an arm of the American people.”
This no longer is true. The army is the instrument of presidents, Pentagon careerists and the American foreign policy community. Now the military establishment and the Veterans Affairs department do what they can to look after the troops when they come home, however they come home, but the American nation as well as the government now have outsourced war. Mercenaries, often foreign, do the job and cost less than regular soldiers—and no one but their families and their commercial insurers worry about them.
If Obama is re-elected president, will he replace old wars with new? There seems in foreign policy circles in Washington a new attraction to liberals’ wars, the “new Wilsonianism.” A generation ago, the New Imperialism was in favor, eventually inspiring the project for a New Middle East, and now a New Central Asia. The U.S. was set on making democrats out of radical Muslims and politically intoxicated terrorists, and has been dealing with bad guys like Saddam Hussein ever since.
Now the good guys are on our side again: springtime Arabs, rebels against dictators, generals and brutal policemen, wired-in new-style protestors. We helped them in Libya (or, actually France, Britain, Qatar and a few others helped them, and we went along for the ride). We felt really good about this. The political “realism” of the past, support for “regional despots” and for the hard-eyed CIA types who manipulated them, are all out of fashion.
Woodrow Wilson and wars to end war are back in fashion, according to Nikolas K. Gvosdev of the U.S. Naval War College and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in Washington’s current National Interest magazine.
“The Libya operation [provides] a model for low-cost, no-consequence interventions … [promoting] U.S. values at minimal cost to U.S. interests. … A combination of air power and special-forces units allows for small, light-footprint, rapid-strike missions that take out an opposing regime.”
The authors say this should interest a new Obama team. Donald Rumsfeld and the surviving neoconservatives will be glad to hear about this too.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Bryan Nygaard